Monday, July 28, 2008

On Writing by Stephen King

Book review by Nathalie Gray (

Commas and Chainsaws

One of the few hardcovers I own except for R.A. Salvatore (and let’s not talk about that addiction, m’kay) is Stephen King’s On Writing. Other reviewers in the past have lauded its gently acerbic and thoughtful autobiographical first half. Just read the hundreds of reviews on Amazon alone. That first half? It’s genius on paper. King takes you back in time to his youth, where maggots crawled out of washing machines, old school horror movies still played in theaters and babysitters yelled “pow!” when they passed gas. As anyone who read this book will tell you, this babysitter will live in your head for a long time. Longer than Nurse Annie Wilkes in Misery. Thanks for that, Mr. King...

But what made my inner Chihuahua chase her tail with savage glee is the second half of the book. Namely, The Toolbox. Like any other trade, writing requires tools. I’m not talking about publishing, which requires celestial alignment. Alliance with dark powers is a nice edge, too. But seriously, dude, On Writing has everything a writer could ever want. King also suggests a method for arranging your own writer toolbox.

Top drawer
The most common tools, like vocabulary, go on top. We’re not talking about consciously looking for big fancy words when short ones would do. Reading builds vocabulary. Reading a lot and diversely.

Grammar and elements of style. This section can pretty much be summed up in a short sentence; get thee a Strunk and White Elements of Style. ’Nuff said.

Middle drawer tools
Hard work and dedication. Burn the midnight oil, write and write some more. Revise your toolbox, read books and, without spiraling into nervous breakdown over minutiae, try to see what works and how. King also mentions that bad books often teach more than good ones. My brain agrees even if my wallet doesn’t.

Bottom drawer
All these nifty little tools that make you own inner Chihuahua chase her tail with savage glee.

That’s it. No secret handshake, no Seventeen Steps to Instant Publishdom or Ninety-two Ways to Tickle Your Muse. What I enjoy the most about On Writing is the no bullshit approach. King advises writers to write, to not only talk the talk, but to also walk the walk. Shut that door to your writing space if you have one, draw the curtains, unhook the phone or ignore it. Do everything you can to make sure you write. Advice like this is too rare in this age of overindulgence and instant gratification. And this method, just like its author, is full of win and awesomeness. In King’s word, writing is like “lifting off in an airplane: you’re on the ground, on the ground, on the ground...and then you’re up, riding on a magical cushion of air”.


Susanne said...

I loved loved loved that book too! Right now I'm reading Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass. I've read mixed reviews about it but honestly, it has great points.

Unknown said...

It's one of my all-time favourite books on writing. In fact, his approach turned out to be, with minor differences, the approach that works for me with novel writing. I might still be struggling on that first novel if not for his insights.

Chris Redding said...

Great book and now I have to go read it again.

Annette Elton said...

I took a creative writing class at the University of Michigan way back when and "On Writing" was the one book the prof recommended above all others.

I ran out and grabbed it from a used book store and have read it many times since.

Anonymous said...

I love On Writing! It really is a modern-day classic on so many levels. I loved being able to peek into the mind of Stephen King, and listen in on how his gears turn, how he aligns his thoughts into one fluid movement. It was fabulous and I mourned when I finished reading. The second part is just as good, if not only more interesting, than Elements of Style. On Writing is one of those rare books that educate and entertain at the same time, all while making you beg for more. Is there a sequel? was my first thought after putting down this book.

Shayla Kersten said...

I have the audio book of On Writing. It's really fun listening to King perform. He really gets into it and sometimes I wonder if he's adlibbing a little as he goes.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps my favourite not-really-how-to-write book. I was eager an enthusiastic while reading it and when it was done was filled with the inspiration and dedication to believe that I CAN write a novel. *smile* It is probably the best book for whenever you have the I'm-a-talentless-hack mood descend.


Dawn Chartier said...

I won this book at a writers conference, and to me this book was the best thing that came out of the conference.


Anonymous said...

I love Stephen King's voice in this book. I recommend it to anybody who approaches me with the "You're a writer; I always wanted to write a book someday..."